Abuse was a phenomenal action shooter with the misfortune to be released in 1996 when the PC gaming world was going apeshit for first-person shooters like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. More’s the pity, because while developer Crack dot Com’s first- (and only-) born did nothing to revitalize the world of video game storytelling, it offered a critical enhancement the platforming genre had been lacking since its introduction: the ability to shoot in one direction while moving in another.
How it took so long for someone to figure this out is anybody’s guess, especially when Abuse wasn’t the first to combine the notion of keyboard-and-mouse controls for the 2D side-scrolling platformer; Dark Castle for the Macintosh used this mechanic to control the protagonist and aim the rocks he threw a decade earlier in 1986. Likewise Abuse hardly pioneered the “move one way while shooting another” mechanic either, something Eugene Jarvis used in 1982 for the arcade version of Robotron: 2084. But the point isn’t that it took so long for a studio to put two and two together, the point is that one finally did, and did so in such a way that it worked flawlessly and gave rise to a whole new way of looking at the 2D shooter.
It’s not just the controls that make Abuse work so well either. The whole game is built to evoke tension, horror, and curiosity–you never know what’s around that corner or what you’ll encounter on the other side of that teleporter pad, but you explore anyway because you just might find the weapon you need to deal with the next horde of misfit abominations looking to satiate themselves with your blood. Storywise we’re about as generic as we can get: you’re a man named Nick Vrenna, falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit and imprisoned in a maximum-security facility where escape is impossible by virtue of the prison being located entirely underground. Bad as things already are, Vrenna’s life is a walking testimony to Calvin’s theory that things in life are never so bad that they can’t get worse.
Scientists have been conducting illegal genetic research using the inmates as guinea pigs. One of these men, Dr. Alan Blake, has managed to isolate the gene which codes for violence and aggression in human beings. He’s called it ‘Abuse’ (because of course he has), and through tampering he’s managed to mutate it into a virus which passes itself from host to host. The results are more ‘Repo: The Genetic Opera’ and less ‘The Sound of Music’.
Fortunately for Nick, he’s immune to the Abuse virus which is raging through the prison, turning guards and inmates alike into more devolved, bloodthirsty assholes than they already were. When the security doors swing open, Nick grabs a conveniently-abandoned suit of power armor and a rifle. This is his only chance to escape, and if he has to laser-drill the craniums of every other life form in the prison to make his way to freedom, then so be it.
The full version of Abuse was released in 1996, but the shareware edition hit shelves twenty years ago today in 1995. Check out this great two-page ad spread for it which ran in PC Gamer magazine: